Monday, July 26, 2010

Simpler is Better: Avoiding the TMI Trap

In studies of map-based problem solving, whether young or old, expert or novice, a consistent pattern was always seen - people of all ages and expertise seemed to prefer being presented more information, not less, even if it takes longer to study detail-laden maps, figures, or diagrams filled with extraneous material.

Too Much Information is the TMI trap.

In experiments involving Navy weather forecasters, Hegarty and colleagues found that "novice and experts alike have a tendency to choose more realistic over less realistic displays, even though realism impairs their performance in simple display comprehension tasks. Some experts prefer no just realism, but also prefer maps that display extraneous meteorological variables." More data and details were extremely seductive; the TMI trap has been seen in all types of problem solving scenarios involving all ages as well as all levels of experience. Hegarty adds, "detail, animation, realism, and showing the third dimension do not consistently enhance performance and often impede it."

Maybe the problem in the weather forecaster study is that the experts (postgraduates in meteorology) were not expert enough.

Other studies of expertise have suggested that experts differ from novices by the fact that they have more abstract (simplified) representations and they know more solutions. Experts are more likely to categorize problems, while novices are more likely to be misled by details or concrete aspects of the problem.

From Chi and colleagues: "When experts are presented a problem or task relevant to their domain of expertise, they see the problem in terms of prior meaningful patterns of information," like the recall of the significance of chess moves by expert chess players or  the significance of X-ray findings by experts radiologists. "Experts are more likely than novices to categorize problems at a deep level of abstraction (or function), whereas novices are more likely to categorize problems based on the surface features." In addition, experts are more likely to organize their schemas for problems in hierarchical fashions, that help them reason through the possibilities and again prioritize what approaches are best.

So simpler is better, but it's the kind of simplicity that's not based on lack of knowledge or experience. To the contrary. Expertise simple has plenty of knowledge and experience, but it's now also beyond them.

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